Gulf Coast Activists Tell ‘Big Green’ To Quit Exploiting Their Disasters

Above Photo: A dog stands in the water near a home that was destroyed when Hurricane Katrina hit September 15, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty

 …For Financial Gain

“You can either be with us, or against us, or you can get out of the way.”

In a new open letter, a group of 11 Gulf Coast environmental justice activists are demanding “respect and solidarity” from national “Big Green” organizations that they accuse of exploiting their local disasters for financial gain and treating poor people of color as “poster children for environmental injustice.”

The activists, who hail from EJ groups including 350 Louisiana, Houstonians Against Tar Sands and Radical Arts & Healing Collective, published the letter on a New Orleans website June 27 and sent it to Colorlines yesterday. While the statement does not name any groups or funders, “Big Green” is a term critics use to describe the largest environmental organizations in the United States, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. An excerpt:

This letter is a demand for respect and solidarity from the national organizations and funders who continue to use our stories, our disasters and our peril to their own advantage, for their own campaigns, for their own purposes—oftentimes without collaboration, consideration or consent from our communities who are used as poster children of environmental injustice. For example, one of the biggest “Big Green” organizations sent an email blast from their executive director citing the recent Shell spill in our waters as the crime it is. However, attached was a petition to protect the (very beautiful) Arctic from future drilling, leaving the Gulf completely off their request. How awful for our Gulf’s devastation [to[ be used in promoting protection of an area somewhere else, without consideration of protecting our region, where the disaster actually happened.

This isn’t the first time environmental justice activists have used an open letter to challenge “Big Green.”

In 1994, as the Environmental Justice Movement was emerging, 173 “citizens” published “A Letter to Friends,” a rebuke of large, predominantly White environmental groups for failing to challenge “our real adversaries in the struggle to save our communities and the natural world: the leaders of today’s giant corporations, and the powerful corporations they direct.”

Today, the staffs of large environmental stalwarts remain overwhelmingly White, and their critics say this lack of diversity exacerbates the racism and poverty that lay at the root of so much industrial malfeasance, air pollution concentrated in poor communities and Global South climate change. In 2014, the landmark “Green 2.0″ report revealed that every “Big Green” organization in the U.S. had a staff that was at least 85.5 percent White.

Activists say that the Gulf Coast, where poor Black and Latinx people are concentrated, has suffered as a result. The five states in this region are particularly vulnerable to climate change as their sea levels rise, their coastlines corrode and their ecosystems undergo unnatural changes. As the New York Times reported in May, the first American climate refugees come from Southern Louisiana.

Not to mention the storms. Those like Hurricane Katrina—a disaster the EJ activists name this week’s letter—willincrease in intensity as climate patterns change.

A “pattern of extraction from the South is hundreds of years in the making, since genocide and stealing of land and labor created the conditions of continued poverty, neglect and inequities that we see to this day in our communities,” this week’s open letter states. “Extraction from our region has become reflexive not only for the industries we are fighting, but the very folks we expect to be our allies and friends.”

Read the full letter here.